On 29 March 2021, the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal heard a charge of professional misconduct laid by a Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) against Dr Heather Adele Heron-Speirs, registered psychologist (the Psychologist).
The charge alleged that the Psychologist conducted herself in an inappropriate and/or unprofessional manner:
- The Psychologist prepared and filed an affidavit in Family Court proceedings in which she expressed an expert opinion about the risk posed to a young girl (Ms H) by her father (Mr H), in circumstances where the Psychologist:
- presented herself as an expert, but did not present her evidence in an objective or unbiased manner;
- did not have sufficient information or expertise to form an opinion as to the risk said to be posed to Ms H by Mr H;
- provided evidence based on statements made by the Mr H’s ex-wife (Ms Y) without considering other possible explanations for the reported behaviour;
- provided her evidence without stating all possible limitations of her evidence including that she had not obtained collateral information about the statements made by Ms Y and/or that she had not met or assessed Mr H;
- provided evidence about Mr H which impugned his character by implying that he may have sexually abused or posed a risk of sexually abusing Ms H, thereby causing emotional harm to him;
- By preparing and filing an affidavit in Family Court proceedings as alleged the psychologist:
- went beyond duty to warn by commenting on the psychological significance of the reported behaviour;
- having previously notified Oranga Tamariki of her concerns, did not accept Oranga Tamariki’s position on her concerns;
- influenced and/or contributed to the beliefs of Ms Y that Mr H posed a risk to Ms H.
In 2017 Ms Y made an application in the Family Court under the Care of Children Act 2004 for parenting arrangements for Ms H.
The Psychologist filed an affidavit in September 2017 in the Family Court, setting out her fears that Ms H was at risk of being sexually abused by Mr H. The affidavit detailed that the Psychologist had written two letters to Oranga Tamariki reporting those concerns.
The Psychologist was not instructed by the Family Court as a child psychologist and had no experience in Family Court proceedings. The affidavit was not filed by a party to the proceedings. It was based on the Psychologist’s observations of Ms H whom she had observed in therapy, and on conversations she had with Ms Y, who was a party to the Family Court proceedings.
In December 2017 Mr H received a copy of the affidavit. He complained to the Psychologists Board in March 2018. Mr H noted that he had never met the Psychologist or spoken with her and that she had not witnessed any interaction between him and Ms H.
In a Family Court judgement dated 23 August 2019, a court-appointed psychologist was not prepared to assign a nefarious interpretation to the issue, which the Psychologist assigned to it. The judge noted that the conclusions drawn by the Psychologist in relation to this matter, did not appear to warrant the strength of statement made by her.
The hearing proceeded on an agreed summary of facts. The Psychologist accepted the charge and that her conduct amounted to professional misconduct.
The Tribunal found that all particulars of the charge were established.
The Tribunal held that the Psychologist’s conduct amounted to professional misconduct. The conduct fell below the standard required of a reasonable psychologist and was therefore negligent. The conduct was also unethical, and, amounted to malpractice. It was held that the Psychologist’s actions were likely to bring discredit to the profession.
The Psychologist knew that she was outside of her sphere of experience and competence, and yet persisted with her views which were clearly going to have an adverse effect on not only Mr H, but the entire family.
The Tribunal ordered that the Psychologist:
- Is censured;
- Has conditions imposed on her practice for 2 years that she:
- Pay a fine of $3,000.00;
- Pay 35% of the costs, amounting to $36,615.77.
Publication of the decision and a summary was ordered.